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Posted September 23, 2003

Blind to the Spirit: How the Media Treat Religion

Reporters Just Don't Get It

SEATTLE, Washington, SEPT. 20, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Complaints about how the media treat the Catholic Church and religion-in-general aren't new. In a speech to a journalism convention here, Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. episcopal conference, pointed to problems in coverage of the sexual abuse scandals.

Bishop Gregory admitted that the media have helped to provoke sorely needed reforms in how the abuse problems are handled, the Tacoma News Tribune reported Sept. 6. Yet, he contended, "the way the story was so obsessively covered resulted in unnecessary damage to the bishops and the entire Catholic community."

Many in the media reject such accusations as an example of "shooting the messenger." However, an in-depth study of religion and the press published last year points to serious deficiencies in media coverage.

In his book "From Yahweh to Yahoo!: The Religious Roots of the Secular Press," Doug Underwood looked at religious attitudes in the newsroom. Underwood, for many years an active journalist and now associate professor of communication at the University of Washington, carried out extensive research on journalists' religiosity.

His surveys discovered that religion does play a part in shaping journalist's views and that it is a mistake to write off the profession in general as irreligious or unaffected by religious values. But, he adds, a common attribute in the journalistic profession is a skeptical and empirical mentality that can blind them to the importance of the spiritual dimension so important in many people's lives. As well, there is a natural tension between the search for "hard facts" by journalists and the proclamation of spiritual values and religious beliefs by churchgoers.

Underwood noted that it is difficult to find commentators in the national press who can tackle the subject of religion in a way that demonstrates an understanding of the topic beyond its political implications. "Journalists must learn to treat religion with greater sympathy, understanding and sensitivity," he recommended.

Terrorists and pedophiles

A study published this summer backs up Underwood's conclusions. The investigation by 29 religion majors at the University of Rochester showed nearly half of all 314 religion stories studied from 12 newspapers were actually about political, legal or criminal activities, the Washington Times reported July 2. Only 28% of the stories treated religion exclusively in terms of beliefs and values.

Notably, coverage of Islam was mostly associated with crimes and violence, and one-third of all Catholic stories referred to crimes. A Feb. 14 obituary of a priest in the Boston Globe, for instance, included many details about sex abuse in the Catholic Church, even though that priest had nothing to do with them.

"Coverage of Catholics and Islam was unbalanced everywhere," said Curt Smith, an English-department lecturer who co-directed the study. "If you were from another planet, you'd think all Muslims were terrorists and all Catholics were pedophile priests."

One cause of the problems is that only a handful of university programs prepare journalists for the religion beat. Mark Schneider, who teaches an eight-week summer program on religion writing at Northwestern University, added that many journalists feel an "aversion" toward matters of faith.

Critics of media coverage on religion got support from an unexpected quarter earlier this year. A March 4 article by Nicholas Kristof, editorial-page writer for the New York Times, observed that the national news media treat the religiously and politically conservative evangelicals through the filter of the Northeast educated elite.

While declaring his personal disagreement with evangelicals, Kristof acknowledged: "Liberal critiques sometimes seem not just filled with outrage at evangelical-backed policies, which is fair, but also to have a sneering tone about conservative Christianity itself. Such mockery of religious faith is inexcusable."

He added that "liberals sometimes show more intellectual curiosity about the religion of Afghanistan than that of Alabama, and more interest in reading the Upanishads than in reading the Book of Revelation."

BBC bias

Across the Atlantic, media coverage of religion is no less problematic. London's daily Telegraph observed that BBC's denials of unfair treatment against Roman Catholic ring hollow. The denials came from BBC's head of religion, Alan Bookbinder, a self-professed agnostic.

The Telegraph on Sept. 10 commented that the BBC's lack of respect for the Church comes out clearly in the disproportionate airtime given to Catholic dissidents. A case in point is the Sept. 2 "Woman's Hour" program about priestly celibacy.

The program centered on the suicide of a priest who had fallen in love with a religion teacher, Jan Curry, who in turn denounced the Church's "hypocrisy." Studio guests, with one exception, also attacked the Church. Even the program moderator, Jenni Murray, joined the chorus of criticism. The Telegraph asked why BBC did not bother to invite even one British Catholic woman to present an alternative viewpoint.

On April 19, the Telegraph also reported that a BBC program on St. Paul, scheduled for May, suggested that an epileptic fit or a freak lightning bolt may have caused the apostle's conversion on the road to Damascus.

Vilayanur Ramachandran, a neuroscientist, told the program that patients who suffered seizures often had intense mystical experiences like St. Paul's. A more bizarre theory, suggested by John Derr, an American earthquake expert, is that St. Paul could have been struck by a bolt of electromagnetic energy, similar to ball lightning, released by a temblor.

The reductionism of religion to political spin (noted by Underwood) is also present in the United Kingdom, as a reporter from the Independent newspaper recounted March 1. Journalist Elaine Storkey was in an unnamed television studio during the enthronement of the new Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. In Storkey's words, it was "a miserable experience," as the real meaning of the ceremony was "drained away" by means of images of anti-war protesters, news flashes from the United Nations and an obsessive camera focus on a preoccupied Tony Blair.

The TV hosts constantly repeated that Williams was a controversial archbishop with his views on women bishops and homosexual clergy. The closing line of the TV coverage was: "So we leave the enthronement of Rowan Williams, 104th archbishop of Canterbury, best known for his opposition to Tony Blair on Iraq, and regarded in the church as a liberal."

Blatant distortion

Another problematical area is media coverage of Church intervention in political matters. Press reports sometimes blatantly distort the message, as happened Feb. 20 in the Spanish daily El Mundo.

Two days earlier, ZENIT and the Italian Catholic paper Avvenire reported on comments by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Sodano in which he explained the Holy See's position in the lead-up to the U.S. military action against Iraq. Cardinal Sodano stated clearly that the Vatican did not take a pacifist position, but instead worked to promote peace and avoid conflicts.

The headline and story in El Mundo, however, claimed that Cardinal Sodano had affirmed that the Church was indeed pacifist. The article even draped his alleged claim in quotation marks, for emphasis.

Such manipulation is relatively rare. More common is the media tendency to miss the deeper meaning of religion's message, and to dumb it down to the level of power politics. No doubt churches and religious denominations could also do a lot to improve the way they communicate. But the media could try a bit of soul-searching too.